Friday, October 30, 2009

Friendly Fire

The standard concession to Obama, squeezed through clenched teeth by conservative critics, is that the man is a gifted politician. Back-handed complement? You bet.

But politiquing really is a vital skill for any politician, lest he or she wants to be trampled by craftier peers. Little doubt remains after his spectacular campaign that the President is well-aware of this, as Hillary, McCain and a wake of fallen veterans can attest. While Obama uses his full war chest against domestic opposition, he appears unwilling to advance American foreign policy with equally shrewd vigor.

As an example of his domestic approach, take the recent row with Fox News who he claims via proxies is the research branch and voice box of the GOP. The President himself, smartly, has attempted to remain above the fray by making only oblique references on the matter. What Obama wants is to isolate and marginalize the opposition in order to undermine their message and, hence, erode support. All this while not appearing petty and partisan. Good politics all around.

Another of Obama’s domestic fronts is being waged against the surprisingly flexible Chamber of Commerce. These two were once on the same side; Obama received support for his stimulus package, which was unusual from the typically conservative body. Problems arose when the business federation fell out of step and opposed the proposed health care overhaul. In retaliation, the President circumvented its leadership by holding meetings directly with top business executives. Nike and Apple both left the Chamber soon after, at which point Obama’s aide Jarrett wryly observed that “it seems as though their members are disengaging”. Again, the President’s moves were deftly designed to literally dismantle dissenters.

Obama is not limited to overt coercion and has proven quite apt at forcing opponents’ hands with much more subtlety. By reframing the debate and generating a lose-lose conundrum for congressional Republicans, the so-called “Party of No” finds itself between acceptance of the most progressive legislation of their political careers and accusations of obstruction. Either take the bait and acquiesce, or accept the partisan label with its associated consequences. Olympia Snow and a handful of Republican senators complied on the stimulus package, and Obama passed his legislation.

The President was not the sole architect of this strategy nor can Miss Snow and company’s motives be reduced to a mere reaction to an implicit threat. Nancy Pelosi and fellow liberals deserve their due credit, and Republicans who broke with their party obviously had personal interests in the benefits bestowed upon the keystones of compromise. Regardless, results speak: Republicans have been unable to shed their reputation as knee-jerk nay-Sayers, and those who rebelled would not have risked their own political careers by supporting the stimulus had the public not been primed. Such is the price extolled for being outmaneuvered by Obama and his Democratic party.

In less than one short year in office, Obama’s accomplishments stem from political victories against domestic opponents earned playing “Chicago-style hardball”. His nose for blood and affinity for pressure points have yet to be displayed, however, on the international stage.

Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than with Iranian relations. In order to garner Russian support for implementing sanctions, the president removed the missile shield bargaining chip from the table. Reciprocation was implicitly sought by taking initiative, demonstrating good will and flexibility. The efficacy of such diplomacy is debatable, but it is undoubtedly passive. Pressure was not exerted, generated or implied, while the only consequences threatened were a heavy conscience and perhaps a reproachful Obama.

Towards the Iranian leadership, Obama implements the same strategy in his refusal to criticize its totalitarian crackdown. The exchange is silence, offered again preemptively, for greater cooperation in nuclear negotiations. No compromise, no discussion, only unilateral concessions made in good faith to a partner one would hardly describe as honest. Such actions are in no way politically astute, and the complete lack of progress thus far offers testament to that assessment.

Elsewhere, one sees more of the same.

Latin American support has been sought by easing trade limitations with Cuba, allying with Chavez on Honduras, and a stop on his immense apology tour. Obama may not have a clear idea of what he wants support for, but he does seem willing to offer payment in advance, just in case.

Diplomatic neutralization of terrorism has also included apologies, distancing from Israel, promises to exit Iraq and a general strategy of eliminating perceived sources of Islamist ire. None of these actions limit the options, change the cost/benefit equations, or qualify as a nudge for those with foreign policy goals in conflict with our own. Rather, they involve sitting and waiting for a response.

Obama simply doesn’t apply pressure in his foreign policy. He prefers, instead, over-reliance on the carrot without use of the stick. There is a perceivable fear of angering the opposition, which seems unfathomable domestically. Could you imagine Obama worried about angering Rush, Fox, or Republicans? How much success would he have had in passing the stimulus package had he sacrificed health care reform, the biggest sticking point between the GOP and Democrats? Bad analogy? Choose another: taxes, welfare, Medicare spending, gay rights, or climate change.

What Obama’s foreign policy strategy amounts to is the following: be nice and hope people are nice in return. Maybe naïveté pays off for him in the future, but so far the results are scant to none and historical precedent is none too favorable. Either way, the President doesn’t seem to think the policy is worth pursuing at home and in no way does it amount to politiquing. A simple trade, referred to as appeasement in many circumstances, works extremely rarely and only when mutual compliance is completely assured. Perhaps if Obama applied his political approach to Republicans abroad, he’d begin to garner the bipartisan respect he desires and shed his reputation as a doormat.


  1. u da man netoborito! C-WOOD!!!

  2. While I agree that the "concessions" that Obama has made in an attempt to reshape foreign policy haven't lead to any defineable progress, I think that the aim is to make long term changes that will lead to future benefits. In trying to demonstrate understanding, and an openness in newer US policy, I think that we'll be able to change a long formed reputation. Also, even if Obama is presenting a "carrot with no stick," there is nothing to be lost from this new attitude.

    As to why Obama hasn't used these tactics on Republicans in congress, I think that it's pretty self explanatory. It doesn't seem as if Republicans in congress are ready to support Obama on any drastic change. It seems to me that they will benefit from disagreeing with everything the President says, causing controversy and dooming Obama to a 1 term presidency.

  3. Contrary to the opinion posted by Anonymous, I believe that the United States has a lot to lose with the "Obama Doctrine" of appeasement. His community organizer attitude, wherein all participants try to find common ground, does not work in the international arena where there are real bullies truly interested in harming US interests. The American government is not the same as that in Iran, Venezuela or North Korea and there is no purpose in either pretending we are or ignoring the abuses perpetrated by those regimes. Naively ignoring those abuses, demonstrating weakness or indecisivenes in the face of those truly seeking to destroy the U.S. serves only to harm our historic allies more ideologically aligned with our own values. I used to think that Obama could do little harm during his four year term. However, with war looming in the middle and near east, his indecisiveness and inability to exercise US power properly is extremely worrisome. While the Republicans are historically more capable in foreign affairs, they have to find a positive message. They cannot rally voters with negative messages.